A court in The Hague has ordered the Dutch government to cut its emissions by at least 25% within five years, in a landmark ruling “expected to cause ripples around the world.” Some 886 plaintiffs organised by Urgenda had accused the Dutch government of negligence for “knowingly contributing” to a breach of the 2C maximum target for global warming. Their legal arguments rested on axioms forbidding states from polluting to the extent that they damage other states, and the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ which prohibits actions that carry unknown but potentially severe risks. A UN climate secretariat article obliging states to do whatever is necessary to prevent dangerous climate change was also cited. So was the UN climate science panel’s 2007 assessment of the reductions in carbon dioxide needed to have a 50% chance of containing global warming to 2C.
To cheers from climate campaigners in court, the three judge panel ruled that the Dutch government’s plans to cut emissions by just 14-17% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 were unlawful, given the scale of the threat posed by climate change. “Before this judgement, the only legal obligations on states were those they agreed among themselves in international treaties,” Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel for Urgenda, the group that brought the suit told the Guardian, adding “This is the first a time a court has determined that states have an independent legal obligation towards their citizens. That must inform the reduction commitments in Paris because if it doesn’t, they can expect pressure from courts in their own jurisdictions.”
In what was the first climate liability suit brought under human rights and tort law, Judge Hans Hofhuis told the court that the threat posed by global warming was severe and acknowledged by the Dutch government in international pacts stating: “The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the judges’ ruling said. “Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”
The Dutch Socialist party MP Eric Smaling cautioned though, sayingthat “some people will feel proud but others are more unhappy about the influx of refugees. So far climate action has too much been the last baby of a relatively leftist elite.” He called for a wide coalition to spread the climate action message before elections in early 2017.
The Dutch government has not decided whether to appeal the court’s decision yet, but opposition politicians are steeling themselves for the prospect. In a statement on behalf of prime minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet, the Dutch environment minister Wilma Mansfeld said that the government’s strategy was to implement EU-wide and international agreements. “We and Urgenda share the same goal,” Mansfeld said. “We just hold different opinions regarding the manner in which to attain this goal. We will now examine what this ruling means for the Dutch state.”
James Thornton, the chief executive of the environmental law group ClientEarth, hailed what he said had been a “courageous and visionary” ruling, that would shape the playing field for future suits. “There are moments in history when only courts can address overwhelming problems. In the past it has been issues like discrimination. Climate change is our overwhelming problem and this court has addressed it. The Dutch court’s ruling should encourage courts around the world to tackle climate change now.”
The court also ordered the government to pay all of Urgenda’s costs.